Re-imagining Peterborough: buttercream, ham, peppercorns and almonds

written Spring, 2019

In March 2017 I relocated to Peterborough, a small city situated within Cambridgeshire, to deliver a community arts project. A move that was to last only 6 months – before going onto Nottingham, a city that I had begun courting from afar.

I was looking for a new home, a new city that I could love, having completed my journey with London and Berlin. These had been long standing homes, partners: both creative and challenging, that allowed me to grow alongside them, with them.

Peterborough ticked almost none of my boxes in terms of what I felt I wanted and needed in a city – and whilst not even a consideration in my hunt – I still find myself here 2.5 years on. 

It has become my unexpected new home.

This text talks of the games I found myself unwittingly employing in a bid to attach to the city and the subsequent journey I found myself going on.

….

“When I first arrived to Warsaw I was intimidated by the huge streets cutting through the squares…the huge apartment buildings and closed apartment complexes…In order to warm the city up, I began to look at things through a different lens: I saw grey buildings as though they were colourful and patterned and I imagined them to have a different function to give them new life. With time, I began to discover new places in the city and I started to feel like I wanted to share my game with other people. For me, constructing Warsaw is a state of mind. We don‘t need asphalt, bricks and glass to do it. Sometimes using simple materials like paper or cloth, with which we build our metro or veggie markets can do a lot to change people‘s consciousness, their concept of aesthetics and approach to using public space rather than constructing closed buildings…”

Wyspa Warsawa, Iza Rutkowska


Wherever I live, or visit, the motions of walking, running and cycling through the city are deeply ingrained within my daily routine: part necessity – to get from A to B, but also, as part of my self care practice. 

Wandering in the (big) city has been my form of meditation before I knew it as a concept. 

New delights at every other step, these are times where I don’t need to try and stay present. 

The multisensory experience engulfs me: leaving no space for going down any unhelpful rabbit warrens, which I’ve found myself prone to visiting over the years.

Staying present isn’t hard in cities like London and Berlin. 

Cities that are carved and curated everyday by many hands; you need not look hard for stimuli to attract and hold your gaze.

On the surface, my new home of Peterborough had less going on.

On arriving, I moved into an area made up largely of uninterrupted stretches of suburban housing: with a pale grey colour palette at large.

With little to spike my interest, hold my attention, left with too much space in the head, I found myself paying visits to these warrens, that were getting longer and more convoluted. 

My runs got shorter. Cycling became the reserve of commuting along. And, when out walking I would quickly get on the phone to busy myself – the environment, my new home, taking on the role of backdrop – hindering the opportunity for a relationship to develop.

But I continued,knowing that this was part of my cure, muttering to myself to PAY ATTENTION.


….

After a while the street names in the area started to catch my eye: 

Buttercream Drive, Sugar Way, Candy Drive, Bakers Lane. 

This was the site of the former British Sugar Factory, these being streets where the factory would have once stood.

Churning these names round and round I found myself starting to imagine this cluster of roads, through a sickly sweet, sugary lens.  

Walking through Buttercream Drive, my vision became frosted over by a smooth, creamy glaze that extended out to coat the suburban architecture, tarmac, concrete, curbs.

I started to notice features that backed up the developing identity that was forming in my head:

a play park with a milky pink, princess like turreted play apparatus,

a local penchant for plastic, spherical flowers decorations, that would hang either side of front doors.

This was an identity of a suburban neighbourhood coated in plastic sweetness – somewhat artificial – slightly eerie, but far more intriguing than before and saw me from that point, forever looking for more clues to back up my thesis when out running, walking, cycling in the area.

Elsewhere in Peterborough I started to notice that lots of roads had food based names.

Ham Lane was the first.

At first I started to find that pieces of ham would manifest in my minds eye as I cycled down the lane, layering on top of my vision giving a pink tinge to my world. 

Then I’d find slices seductively draped on signage, dripping like Dali’s clocks.

Until, every time I ventured down Ham Lane I’d find myself encased by huge, slabs of ribbed, mustard-glazed ham and like waves, slices would peel off and start crashing down either side of me – the slices wibbling and rippling as they fell.  Me, always cycling just fast enough to get away.

Next I found Peppercorn Close. A quite ordinary, narrow cul-de-sac: at first glance. 

But, where, if you look closely, you’ll locate a cluster of peppercorns found forever bouncing along the pavement, with a life of their own, ready to bop into buildings of whose doors had been left ajar, or trip up the absent minded visitor…

This vision imbued the street with a playful warmth, brought a smile every time I cycled by.

Then there was Almond Road. An utterly unassuming – perfectly pleasant – suburban road, made up of semi detached houses running in rows, accompanied by street trees running in corresponding rows – the spacing consistent – just like the brickwork, cars parked, front lawns.

I found myself designing merchandise for a road, born out of an imagined future where a form of hyper-hyper localised gentrification had taken hold in Peterborough and Almond Road had been hit.

I started drawing tote bags,aprons, mugs, with the Almond Road branding stamped on them: the whole collection available for the road-proud dweller.

There was even a local press publication that told of the all the roads’ latest news – from neighbours scandals ‘John at 58 left the wrong bin out!!’, the environment ‘The willow tree by the green verge next to house no 22 is sucking the earth dry! Community watering commencing 12 July’ to commerce ‘Newsagents stops stocking Milky Way bars: Have Your Say’.

This led me to thinking of the micro intrigue that sits behind every street, every suburban road, that’d I’d previously been quite dismissive of.

These game would fill my thoughts, add a new delight to streets, new meaning, made me think of your words in Wyspa Warsawa.

I am happy to report that, two years on, whilst I still find myself, from time to time playing imaginary games with street names (I’ve just discovered Raisin Court!), I’ve since gone on a learning journey with the natural world.

Having spent the last year or slowing building up a catalogue in my head of tree parts – leaf shapes, colours, bark texture, patterns – scanning each part as I walk, run cycle by, I find that I am now about to identify at least 1 in 5.

And moreover, through practicing a more active, noticing, wander (a new type of game) I feel I’ve sharpened my multi-sensory lens – seeing suburban streets taking on renewed interest…

This has been through taking the time, and practising, to notice the colours of the flowers, berries, leaves, seeing if and how they compliment stones, brickwork, paths. 

To zoom in on unassuming sections of pavement, finding a whole world exists within comprised of colour, texture, movement.

To tune into the sound of bird song, I hope one day to be able to identify.
To acknowledge, to inspect, the interplay between shadow and light at high sun and the patterns created by the railings and other everyday features.

To reach out and touch the curious looking, rigid leaf,

feel the bare bits of the recently skin-shed plane tree,

run a stick along a railing to find out what it sounds like.

And, in terms of this housing, a new joy has been found in noticing people street-facing window sill displays – their curtains shut, this is just for us. 

These mini art galleries that adorn the city, that give insight to the people who live behind the curtain; these daily, private curators.

Feeling more connected the landscape – my new games includes trying out the perspective of other elements within the environment:
to try seeing the street from the perspective of a leaf in the old oak, feeling how the wind moves me –  too and fro – and then in circular motions: with the branches that hold me, moving like fingers hinged from the hand that is the tree.

And sometimes, when in tune I find myself feeling, on a visceral level, the sudden swoops, lurches of the swallow, as I take on the world from this angle, through this motion.

….

I think about having developing Peterborough eyes and for me this is noticing eyes, leaps and jumps from my expectant, blunt, London eyes – where everything was given to me.

I’ve also come to realise part of the draw of the big city was that I was unable to just be with my thoughts. I had deliberately manufactured a life where there was as little space, silence as possible: constant visual, and sensory stimulation. 

I am happy to report that now – through lots of work – I am much better with a kind of stillness I had not been before.

And now find myself contemplating taking on the bigger city again, and this time with more calm, stability and renewed ways of seeing.

STREET PHOTOS

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